To add insult to injury, a group of local Catholics had asked to be
able to pray in front of the icon in the Cathedral of the Immaculate
Conception Friday night, before it was handed over on Saturday. They were
told, however, that out of respect for Patriarch Alexy, his should be the
first eyes to see the icon. (As things turned out, the first eyes to see
the icon in Russia belonged to a young female customs officer who insisted
on inspecting it.)
Sensitivity to the Orthodox is pushed to an extreme, local
Catholics complain. They say their church is “on hold,” locked into a
ghetto made up mostly of Poles, Germans and Lithuanians, because it’s
official Vatican policy not to grow.
“We do not take much care of catechism, proper catechism,” one local
Catholic leader told NCR. “Worse still, we do not have evangelization at
all. Can you imagine a church without evangelization?”
In fairness, there is a Catholic radio program in Russian and a
wide variety of Catholic publications, some published by the dioceses and
many by religious orders. Still, local observers say these offerings are
directed largely to existing Catholics rather than to introducing the
church to the broader Russian culture.
Kondrusiewicz denied that sensitivity to the Orthodox is preventing
the Catholic church from living its normal life.
“We are preaching the Gospel, we are catechizing children and
young people, our commissions are working as they worked before,” he said.
Still, the slow-growth policy seems real. One sign: If a Russian
of Orthodox background shows up at a Catholic parish to express interest
in joining the Catholic church, nine times out of 10 the priest’s
first response, according to local observers, will be: “Why don’t
you return to the Orthodox church?”
Similarly, Kondrusiewicz told NCR he is currently concerned that a number
of Orthodox young people have expressed an interest in attending
the Catholic church’s next World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in
2005. He’s trying to invite Orthodox clergy to attend, lest this seem like
Another wrinkle is financial. Because of John Paul’s abiding interest in
improving relations with the Orthodox, local Catholics sometimes find
themselves in the surreal position of watching funds from
international Catholic donors flow to Orthodox causes rather than their
own. For example, in the coming weeks a delegation from the mammoth German
Catholic foundation Renovabis will arrive in Moscow to discuss supporting
Orthodox seminaries. The lone Catholic seminary in Russia, meanwhile,
struggles to pay the bills.
“The rest of the world must not forget that there are Catholics in this
country who need resources,” said Vladimir Merkulov, a Catholic layman who
works for the state gas company. “We should not be set aside for the sake
All this, of course, raises the question about John Paul’s policy of
ecumenical dÎtente: Is it worth it?
The aims are undeniably lofty.
Defenders say it is the will of Christ that the church be one,
hence ecumenism is an indispensable commitment for Christians. Divided
Christianity offers a compromised witness to the world, which badly needs
its moral and religious message. In Europe, the pressures of secularism
and the privatization of religion will only grow, and together Catholics
and Orthodox will be better positioned to resist them. The challenges to
European cultural identity posed by growing religious pluralism,
especially Islam, also might benefit from joint Catholic/Orthodox reflection.